An inspiring coming-of-age story about the pursuit of a better life in the United States is the 2014 One Maryland One Book selection. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande describes her perilous journey of illegally emigrating from one of the poorest states in Mexico to a Los Angeles Latino neighborhood. Read the entire Between the Covers blog review here.
Upon learning of her selection, the Mexican-born author and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist said, “I'm humbled that my immigrant story was chosen to be the springboard for lively conversations on what the American Dream means today.” The Los Angeles Times called her book “the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.”
Now in its seventh year, the Maryland Humanities Council program brings people from diverse communities together from across the state through a shared reading experience, book-centered discussions and other programming. A calendar of free public events will be available on the MHC website this summer. Last year’s book, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village by Peggielene Bartels, attracted thousands of readers to Maryland’s statewide book club. The 2014 theme is “the American Dream.”
Baltimore’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was known as the most beautiful woman in the United States. Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, was more interested in women than war games. The pair fell madly in love, and in so doing, changed their destinies and affected international diplomacy. Carol Berkin shares the story of this remarkable woman in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Born in Baltimore in 1785, Betsy was the eldest child of William Patterson and Dorcas Spear Patterson. Betsy’s beauty was renowned and coupled with her intelligence, wit and independence, it made her one of the most sought-after women in America. She refused marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men, writing to her father, "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Her 1803 marriage to Jerome ensured her place in the spotlight and in history. Her father’s opposition to this union paled in comparison to Napoleon’s livid reaction. When the couple traveled from Baltimore to France, Napoleon banned the then-pregnant Betsy from disembarking in any European port. Napoleon also gave Jerome an ultimatum: Stay married to Betsy and get nothing, or marry a woman of Napoleon’s choice and enjoy wealth and power. Jerome ended the marriage in 1805 and was made king of Westphalia.
England welcomed the sensational Betsy with open arms, and it was there that she gave birth to her son and only child. She spent the rest of her life traveling between Baltimore and England and grew to admire the refined English society and despise America’s obsession with commerce. Despite her disdain for her country’s moneymaking mania, she fought for and received a pension from Napoleon that she invested, ultimately amassing a great fortune. Using Betsy’s letters, Berkin goes behind the tabloid-esque story and creates a portrait of an independent woman struggling to find her place in a changing world.
The Maryland Historical Society’s exhibit "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy” brings to life the two worlds that Betsy inhabited and showcases her jewels, silver, furniture, paintings and much more, including one of her scandalous gowns.
Some may remember him from The Carol Burnett Show where he played such absurdly silly characters as Mr. Tudball, while others will recall him as the bumbling Ensign Parker in the TV show McHale’s Navy. Then there are those who have seen his Dorf series of videos. However you remember Tim Conway, his book What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life will introduce you to aspects of the comic you may have never known.
Conway (born Thomas Conway in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio) loves to tell a funny story, and his book is full of them. Some of the stories involve his eccentric yet lovable family but most are about his life in show business. Being an only child, Conway had a kind of built in audience with his family. He used these early experiences at home, in the classroom, during his brief time in the Army and throughout his extended time at Bowling Green State University to hone his craft and become the comic legend that we know today.
Over the years, Conway has worked with many of the greats in comedy and is quick to give praise to those who helped him achieve success. Some of the celebrities he worked for or with include Ernie Anderson, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine and, of course, Carol Burnett. There are sides to Conway that are surprising (for example, being an avid horse racing fan) and some that you might expect (he and Harvey Korman really were great friends), but they all add up to an intriguing and funny memoir. Hopefully, Conway will be around to make us laugh for a long time to come.
Historian Jill Lepore eloquently pieces together the sparse writings of a little-known 18th-century American woman who also happens to be the favorite sister of Benjamin Franklin. In her meticulously researched work Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the Harvard University professor reveals a humble woman whose station does not dampen her upbeat and quick-witted spirit. The siblings emerge as two restless spirits, connected through their love of writing yet separated by their assumed roles of the time.
Born in 1712 in a two-story wooden house on Union Street in Boston, the youngest child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was expected to learn to read but not necessarily how to write. Her mother taught her, as did Benjamin, who was six years older. Married at 15, Jane Franklin Mecom's endless days of cleaning, washing and mothering were in contrast to her glamorous brother's life. She cherished letters from her brother. Their lifelong correspondence reveals a keen, opinionated woman who is a shrewd political observer and a lover of books. With 12 children, she came up with her own way of chronicling births and deaths by creating her own slim book called the "Book of Ages." The book became a remembrance and her story. It survives, while most of her letters to her brother do not.
Lepore, a National Book Award finalist and staff writer for The New Yorker, is passionate about her subject even when evidence is scarce. She explores the political, social and commercial sides of the times in compelling character-driven prose. And while she freely draws the parallel life of the siblings, it is the juxtaposition of men’s and women's roles in Colonial America that reminds readers of the extraordinary fortitude of women like Jane. With 148 pages of notes, source material, reproduced documents and time period detail and spellings, the narrative unfolds slowly. Readers of early American or women's history are rewarded with a fresh look at one of this country's most influential, iconic leaders and the sister in his reflection.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
Blogger, mom and wife, and, in her own words, “recovering Jesus Freak,” Addie Zierman writes the story of her evangelical adolescence and young adulthood in When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Raised by parents who belonged to an evangelical church, Addie caught “fire” in her sophomore year of high school when she and her friends became devout Christians, first joining and then creating their own Bible study group at their high school. These were the 1990s, the days of WWJD?, mission trips to save lost souls and contemporary Christian pop music.
Divided into four sections, Zierman provides the reader with a glimpse into the mind of a young evangelical woman who believes she knows the path that her God has put forth. Pressing her along this journey is Chris, a young man three years older, who seems to Addie to have it all figured out. But as she eventually realizes, nothing she does is holy enough for Chris while he is in his own state of “fire,” and they part on bad terms. This breakup points Zierman toward her disillusionment with her beliefs; nonetheless, she enrolls in a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities. She meets the love of her life, Andrew, who shares Addie’s propensity for standing out from the rest of their classmates. After their marriage, failed attempts to find a church that has everything they’re looking for results in her rebellion against everything. This includes forays into alcohol abuse, a minor infidelity and previously undiagnosed depression. Ultimately, she finds redemption in creating a spiritual center that is right for herself and her family.
Conversationally composed, with very little religious jargon that might bother the casual reader, When We Were on Fire is an exceptional memoir. Relatable to anyone who has ever become fixated on a topic, whether it involves matters of faith, a romantic interest or otherwise, Addie Zierman’s work makes her a writer to watch.
A dizzying amount of wealth permeates the stone fortifications in Anthony Russell’s entertaining new memoir, Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle. What seems most important is what the wealth symbolizes and how it shapes the lives of those it cradles. Yes, the tweedy set flaunts its well-placed connections. There are pheasant-shoots, duck launches and tea-sipping beneath museum-bound tapestries. Not surprisingly, Russell admits there are also consequences to being reared in a "gilded bubble,” where everything material is handed to you. Russell aims to satisfy our curiosity.
For those not familiar with medieval fortresses, Leeds Castle is about as splendid as they come. Located in Kent, England, the former Norman stronghold with ties to six queens of England is among the most visited historic buildings in Britain. Its 900-year history is the stuff of fairy tales. Readers will appreciate the complement of black and white photographs.
The writer-musician Russell, who grew up in this milieu, was exposed to the stuff of kings at an early age thanks to his maternal grandmother and chatelaine, the bold, indomitable Lady Baillie. "Granny B" purchased Leeds Castle in 1926 for the American sum of $874,000. It is here that Russell spent his childhood in the 1950s, absorbing "the castle way." This included eccentric "ceremonies" like fussing over baby ducks and enduring family gatherings where no one paid him much mind. With such a privileged start, gearing up for adulthood beyond the castle gate would have its challenges.
Writing with wry humor, Russell alternates between being sardonic and wistful. He points out unapologetically some of the silliness while poignantly recalling the shear splendor of it all and gratitude for being a part of it. We get to know some of the uniquely British personalities (with names like Morg, Guysy-Wee and Mr. Elves) who help add the color that make this frank, behind-the-scenes look a delightful jaunt, just in time for the return of another extravagant household in Downton Abbey.
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
Never hesitant to state his strong opinion and create controversy, Morrissey has been a lightning rod since he burst onto the scene as The Smiths’ frontman in the 1980s. Now, with Autobiography, he sets his record straight on the many phases of his life and recording career. Whether or not you find him a hopelessly depressing poseur or are a longtime fan and follower (there really is little middle ground!), this stream-of-consciousness memoir will be of interest to most anyone who listened to the music of the era.
Starting with his Manchester childhood and school days, the singer outlines his life through memories that are by turns gauzy and pointed. He shows a surprisingly tight relationship with his family, and includes the tragic deaths of relatives and friends, many of which have seemingly affected his songwriting and have haunted him to this day. Much of the book, naturally, focuses on the many people who Morrissey feels have wronged him. The much-heralded rift between him and his Smiths writing partner Johnny Marr is fairly minor compared to the vitriol Morrissey retains for Mike Joyce, former Smiths drummer, and the British judge that ruled in Joyce’s favor when it came to recording royalties. The usual suspects such as the English music press, the monarchy, Margaret Thatcher, radio DJs, etc. are also the recipients of his bitterness.
While there are no chapters or other breaks in his memoir, it reads quickly. Regarding his personal life, he doesn’t directly address his ambiguous sexuality, and the encounters he has with various celebrities are more interesting than mere name-dropping. He places a focus on the constant touring and the fans more than on his songwriting and records produced. By turns heartbreaking, intriguing, frustrating and peppered with Morrissey’s well-known wit, there is no doubt that Autobiography is a product solely his own – no ghostwriters here.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.